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Why COVID-19 Was a “White Swan” Occurence

BY: Amelia Kwan

Out of all the world’s biggest natural disasters, wars, and pandemics, COVID-19 is only the most recent. As a highly contagious disease in a time where the surge in international travel and tourism have reached an astronomical high, it was only a matter of time before it overtook the world.

With over 4 million confirmed cases and 300,000 deaths to date, COVID-19 is a far cry from the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2004, which only had 8,000 cases worldwide and 800 deaths. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic had over 500 million global cases with an estimated 17 to 50 million deaths.

Humanity has battled against many other diseases over the past century; Ebola, Malaria, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to name a few. We have a plethora of experience in handling diseases, as well as disease control research. Medical technology, research, and resources are more advanced than they have ever been. We pride ourselves for eradicating Polio, for developing vaccines, medicine. Teachers, scientists, politicians, boast our unrivaled ability to provide safe, effective healthcare. Therefore, we should be well-prepared to handle another pandemic and minimize the number of infected and deaths, right? Right?


The needless heartbreak, anxiety, lockdowns, economic collapse, and overall utter calamity were completely preventable. That’s why scholar, essayist, risk analyst, and author of “The Black Swan” Nassim Taleb describes COVID-19 as a “White Swan”.

To begin, Taleb uses the term “Black Swan” as an unpredictable event that is far beyond what is normally expected, with impactful and potentially severe consequences. In other words, an outlier. The first World War (WWI) is a prime example of this - if you asked any political leader, military captain, or strategist to predict the workings and outcome of a world war.

Imagine asking any citizen in 1900 the likelihood of a world war ending with 40 million casualties, followed by a pandemic with 50 million deaths, and then another World War with development of weapons of mass destruction. Imagining asking the residents of Hiroshima in 1930 if they believed that their entire city would be obliterated within the next two decades. They would probably have given you a strange look and laughed.

The bottom line is, Black Swan events are the reason forecasting many global disasters are near impossible, and they occur much more frequently than one might expect. Conversely, a White Swan is exactly the opposite - an event that is forecastable, falling in line with our notions of regularity. Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of COVID-19 is that it was a White Swan, one that could have been avoided.

In fact, Taleb wrote in his own book years ago,

“As we travel more on this planet, epidemics will be more acute -- we will have a germ population dominated by a few numbers, and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively.

We know the possibility of a potentially deadly virus spreading around the world, and we also know what measures to take in order to stop it. So why haven’t we?

One particularly interesting route to take is to examine the role of capitalism. The United States and Canada are injecting $2 trillion and $82 billion stimulus packages, respectively, in a desperate attempt to rescue our floundering economies. While it has helped large corporations and a few small businesses, the timing of trillions of dollars shoved into the market merely reflects a lack of responsibility and misdirected priority.

It is the responsibility of businesses and governments to be prepared for situations such as this ahead of time, especially with the knowledge and resources we already possess. The solution was in our hands from the very beginning: prevention.

If the stimulus package had been distributed in January, spending to save airlines, PPE for workers across industries (but especially essential workers), and medical equipment, we would have barely spent anything saving the economy compared to the trillions today. The short-term orientation of capitalism caused the delay of a corporate and a government measures to handle the pandemic.

The same problem exists with countless other world issues - climate change, poverty, homelessness, lack of education, and more. Putting them aside out of motivation for profit and market growth is deliberate ignorance, which will only reap the inevitable consequences later, ten-fold.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we all need to become communists and reject society. Every societal model has its systemic flaws and subsequent consequences. However, that is no excuse for blatant ignorance and irresponsibility. Let COVID-19 be a lesson in accountability, in leadership, and in economic sustainability.


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